50th anniversary of the Saimaa Canal: the canal is being developed to fully serve vessel traffic in the area

50th anniversary of the Saimaa Canal: the canal is being developed to fully serve vessel traffic in the area

Published 17.8.2018

The 50th anniversary of Finland’s most important canal, the 43-kilometre long Saimaa Canal, was celebrated on 5 August 2018. The Saimaa Canal connects Lake Saimaa to the Gulf of Finland. Nearly half of the Saimaa Canal runs through a land area leased from Russia. The eight locks of the Saimaa Canal are operated via remote control centres at Mälkiä and Brusnitchnoe.

Photo of Saimaa canal.

The Saimaa Canal was first opened in 1856 and was, at that time, the largest construction project ever completed in Finland. The project amounted to three million roubles, which was more than the annual budget of the Grand Duchy of Finland for that year. However, from an economic perspective, this was a profitable investment, and traffic in the canal was extremely busy right from the beginning.

Over the years, actions to improve the canal included renewing the locks and straightening and widening the canal. The canal took its current form 50 years ago with the completion of the fundamental expansion work.  

Important part of the Finnish transport system

During this past traffic period, the traffic volumes of the canal grew significantly compared to those of the previous year. In 2017, freight transport increased by 6% and passenger transport by 3%, compared to the previous traffic period.

“The Finnish Transport Agency is putting serious effort into developing the canal and the whole Saimaa Lake District. Despite the already good reliability of channels and locks in the Saimaa Lake District, several development projects in the channels are currently underway and in the planning stage”, says Kari Wihlman, Director General of the Finnish Transport Agency.

Three large projects are currently underway: The renewal of the lower gates of the Saimaa Canal, and the building of the Laitaatsalmi channel and the Jännevirta Bridge. All these projects will be completed this year or next year.

Planning underway for larger vessels and cargoes

“The Finnish Transport Agency is currently planning an extension of the canal locks. The aim is to start the construction work already in 2020. The planning is proceeding in cooperation with transport operators and the industry in the Saimaa Lake District. The harbours of Lake Saimaa should also examine their own invest needs and opportunities to provide access to vessels of new sizes”, says Wihlman.

The extension of the locks can be carried out during 1–3, winters depending on the clients’ needs, the entrepreneurs’ visions and obviously on the project financing. The project contains a number of challenging special works, and preliminary costs are estimated to be around 60 million euro.

At the same time, the Finnish Transport Agency is planning to raise the water level of the Saimaa Canal by 10 centimetres in order to enable vessels operating in Lake Saimaa to increase their cargo volumes by 100 tonnes.

The lock extension and the raised water level would naturally enable increased vessel sizes in the Saimaa Canal, which would consequently increase the load capacity of vessels and profitability of operations as well as increase the number of vessels able to operate in the canal.

Smoother winter navigation

Icebreaking in the Saimaa Lake District is being developed by means of new innovations. These innovations include a motorised removable bow, which after completion at the end of the year will make it easier for vessels to proceed in ice. The winter operability of the locks has been improved and the assistance of winter navigation is being developed continuously.

The Finnish Transport Agency’s Digital Saimaa Canal project develops digital services that support operations in the canal.

The Digital Saimaa Canal project enables better navigation and alternative pilotage procedures in the canal. In the long term, the aim is to replace the current pilotage service with a manual shore-based service. Recent hydrographic survey data also enable the production of electronic navigational chart material that meets the current quality criteria.

More on the topic:

The Finnish Transport Agency’s archives contain about 103 running metres of archival material about the construction project in the Saimaa Canal. The material includes extensive photo documentation, of which just over 1,000 photos have recently been published in digital form.

The Finnish Transport Agency's photo collection:

The Finnish Transport Agency’s projects in the Saimaa Lake District

Laitaatsalmi project
Jännevirta project